Facebook. After ten years of friendship I was finding out she was marrying some man I’d never even heard of via social media. I thought about adding the obligatory comment to the ever-growing list of “OH MY GOSH THIS IS AMAZING!” and overly-enthusiastic emoticons, but pulled out my cellphone instead. I still had her number so I shot her a quick I-just-saw-you’re-engaged-so-congratulations-and-all-that-jazz text.
It was weird to text her but it felt like not acknowledging it might somehow feel weirder. After all, when I’d gotten engaged she was the very first non-immediate family member I told; at the time, it wouldn’t have made sense to tell anyone else first. But our relationship had changed a lot since then.
She responded to my text, and we tried to chat about her engagement. But it felt awkward, stilted. It’d been too long.
We met right after I graduated from high school in a tiny little town in Eastern Europe that was surrounded by sunflower fields which were so intensely yellow you could barely look directly at them. I was spending three and a half months living abroad; I’d hopped on a plane heading to a country I’d never been to before where someone I didn’t know was waiting with a cardboard sign with my name on it. I met a lot of people, but most of the friendships couldn’t stand the distance once I was back in my dear old rainy Washington. But she made enough of an effort to make it work.
She was surrounded by another culture, another language, living in another timezone but she was just an email away. I’d write her an email before going to bed and often I had a reply waiting for me by the time I woke up the next morning. When she eventually came stateside communication got even easier. The mail now took only a matter of days instead of a month, texting was a new option, and phone calls replaced emails. “Remember,” she’d often sign her cards or letters, “I’m just a phone call / text message / email away!”
Due to the distance, I thought of her like an imaginary friend: invisible to everyone but me. And when I think back, I suspect our friendship eventually, very slowly, became imaginary. I just wasn’t willing to see it or admit it. After years of being in constant contact she slowly began to fade away. She only called when she wanted to vent or needed help filling out her college application or creating a new resume. When someone very dear to me was in the hospital on suicide watch and I was terrified, frazzled, barely keeping my head above water, she didn’t return my messages. The birthday and Christmas presents eventually stopped coming completely. She was no longer just a phone call / text message / email away.
But I can be stubborn — or perhaps just kind of clueless — when it comes to friendships. I refuse to admit I’ve heard the Fat Lady, and I think if I just try a little harder that’ll finally do the trick. I hadn’t been the one who’d faded away; I wasn’t the one who wanted it to be over. So as we awkwardly texted about her engagement I agreed to talking on the phone later in the week, which resulted in even more awkwardness. (I think I ended up babbling about my new-ish dairy allergy because I was nervous; I’d never felt nervous talking with her, not even when we’d first met.)
There was too much polluted water under our little bridge. I was too hurt. Too much had happened. As much as I missed our old friendship and my old friend, there was no going back to yesterday.
Pleasantries didn’t feel pleasant anymore; instead, they somehow hurt.
It was time to stop hoping or trying or bothering. It was time to stop wondering what happened. It was time to throw the bookmark away and close the book.
It was time to say goodbye.
I’m learning that saying goodbye to unhealthy friendships — even friendships that were once mutually supportive, caring and fun but morphed with time — is an act of self-care. It’s hard but it’s healthy.
I’ve had a lot of unhealthy friendships that I’ve allowed to continue for longer than I should’ve because I didn’t think saying goodbye was an option. I’m still figuring out this friendship thing. I’m still learning that friendship doesn’t mean functioning as someone’s free on-call therapist. Friendship doesn’t mean dropping everything because someone who never normally even calls wants you to proof-read a college paper. Friendship doesn’t mean investing your soul in people who put down your victories and minimize your heartache. Friendship doesn’t mean never saying Ouch! when your feelings are deeply hurt by your friend because you don’t want to rock the boat or are afraid of how they’d respond. Friendship doesn’t mean being someone’s “project” — or turning them into a project, either. Friendship doesn’t mean laying on the floor like a forgotten child’s plaything waiting for the next time you’re needed.
I think friendship means walking together, side-by-side. It’s a mutual thing. Or at least, it should be. But people are messy so this friendship thing is, too.
It’s funny because in some ways I think friendship is more valuable to me now as an adult than it was when I was younger but at the same time I’m learning to hold my friendships more loosely. I’m trying to be thankful for the people who have passed through my life but turned out to not be major characters in my own drama. Sometimes distance or busyness or changes in seasons of life get in the way. Sometimes I need to draw boundaries when friendships are no longer healthy or even say goodbye.
I’m learning to be open to letting friendships change organically, instead to attempting to freeze them at my favorite season. Sometimes people pop in and out of our lives; sometimes their exits are final, maybe even dramatic. It’s hard to let people go, but what I’ve found in the last year since I last spoke to my old friend is once I stopped investing so much time into an unhealthy friendship, I had time to develop new friendships. And I was able to finally notice the people in my life who are willing to meet me halfway when it comes to this messy business of friend-making.